Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Toward a Common Vision of the Church: Will It Fly?

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Toward a Common Vision of the Church: Will It Fly?

Article excerpt

Perhaps the two most significant ecumenical documents since the Second Vatican Council's "Decree on Ecumenism" are the 1982 Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) (1) text of World Council of Churches (WCC) and the 1999 Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. (2) Now, the WCC has added its "convergence statement," The Church: Towards a Common Vision (TCTCV). (3) A Historical Note at the conclusion of the document points out that this text is "of the same status and character" (4) as its earlier BEM text.

In this essay I will examine briefly the TCTCV text, then make some ecclesiological observations on the text, consider some obstacles to a common ecclesial vision, and raise the question of a global church. Finally, I will ask how we might be able to move forward.

I. The Text

The history of the Faith and Order text, TCTCV, is complicated. While not as long in gestation as BEM, the antecedents to the statement on the church include the churches' official responses to BEM; the reflections of the WCC's Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in 1993 at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on "Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life, and Witness"; and a new ecumenical study on the church, its nature and mission, launched by the Faith and Order Plenary Commission in 1989 and published in 1998 as the provisional text, The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement. (5) Responses to this text noted that it did not address teaching authority and that the topic of mission was underdeveloped.

The next draft, The Nature and Mission of the Church, was presented to the 2006 WCC Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil. In successive chapters, it addressed the church as communion and its mission as servant of the reign of God; the relation between the local church and all the churches; the elements necessary for communion between churches, such as apostolic faith, baptism, eucharist, ministry, episkope, councils, and synods, as well as primacy and authority; and the church's service to the world. This revised text was then sent to the churches and other ecclesial groups for their responses. From this point the Plenary Commission of Faith and Order began preparing what became the final text, in the process integrating more clearly the earlier material on baptism, eucharist, and ministry into its view of what was essential to the life of the church.

The final text was presented to the Faith and Order Standing Commission, meeting in Penang, Malaysia, on June 21, 2012, where it was unanimously approved as a convergence (not consensus) statement with the title, TCTCV. John Gibaut says it represents not a blueprint but "a vision of what the Church could be in its theological self-understanding, life, and mission." (6) Interspersed throughout the text are paragraphs in italics lifting up specific issues where divisions remain, designed to encourage further reflection. In September, 2012, the Central Committee of the WCC received the text and commended it to the member churches for their study and responses. (7)

The Introduction points out that the text is structured in terms of four ecclesiological issues, the church's essentially missionary origin, understanding it as communion, its growth toward the reign of God, and its relation to the world. I will summarize these briefly as origin, nature, growth, and relation to the world, then make some summary observations on its ecclesiology.

A. Chapter I: Origin

The church finds its origin in relation to God's plan for creation, manifested in the incarnation and paschal mystery of Christ and Christ's proclamation of the gospel of the reign of God. Jesus sent forth the apostles as witnesses, empowering them with the Spirit to make disciples, to teach, and to be a community of witness. Thus, the church cannot be understood apart from the saving activity of the Trinity. From the New Testament period Christian unity has been important for both the mission and nature of the church, a visible unity that requires that the churches be able to recognize in one another what the Nicaea-Constantinople Creed calls the "one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church," noting that such recognition may call for "changes in doctrine, practice, and ministry within any given community. …

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